Sunday, March 27, 2016

Here We Are Again

So, it has been a while...again.  I have spent my fall and winter learning a new job, something that promises to balance my year out nicely with the summer season on the whale boat. I'm currently doing classroom presentations about resource conservation for K-12 students, and the work is rewarding, challenging, and really teaching me a lot.  As someone who has identified as an environmentalist for my entire adult life, it is humbling to learn what I don't already know.  Not sure my household agrees, as I am asking them to be more careful about their own resource use.  But more on that later, that's not the point of this post.

My household is privileged to own a small sailboat. And truly, it is a privilege. We are not a household of high means in the very expensive place that we live, but sailors figure it out because once you've lost your heart to the sea there can be no other way. It is, however, sometimes hard to get time to enjoy the boat, and moorage can sometimes be tough to make after all the other expenses of the month. We have been keeping our boat at a marina about 2 hours away, and so not using it nearly as often as is good for us, or for it. We made the decision to move to a closer marina, and moving the boat was the longest period of time I have spent on our boat so far.

In late March, the weather is anyone's guess, but we were blessed with a placid day of puffy clouds and sun. Since we weren't planning to sail (we needed to make time to the new marina to get there in daylight, and the winds along our planned route are fickle and capricious on the best of days), the calm waters didn't matter.
I think this picture captures pretty perfectly why it is worth it to keep the boat.  Moments like this, in the sun on gorgeous water in the inland sea, are precious and restoring in the midst of the demands life. But of course, if you're on a boat in this inland sea, there is another thing you might encounter...whales!

As we entered the north end of Saratoga Passage, I checked Orca Network's Facebook page, knowing that gray whales had been seen in recent weeks and wondering if any had been spotted that day.  What I learned there was that there was a group of Transient Killer Whales moving north toward us in the passage! I had deliberately not considered this possibility when moving the boat, I didn't want to be disappointed if we didn't see them. But there the were, heading right toward us.

We caught up with them just north of Holmes Harbor. The water was mostly devoid of other vessel traffic, just one other boat on scene with them. In the still afternoon we could hear the blows clearly as the whales passed us, and we turned and followed them a short while since we had a little bit of time to spare.

When I'm on the whale watching boat in the summer, I often notice people completely missing the experience of being out with the whales and enjoying them because they are so very focused on getting just the right shot--something that is extremely difficult to do if one does not have specific equipment and a lot more time, if not patience and experience, than we have available on one of our tours. Sometimes I suggest to people they might want to just look at the whales and buy postcards with nice pictures on shore--of course, there aren't as many postcards to buy anymore, in this age of email and text messages. But the point remains.  If this is the only few hours of your entire life that you are going to be here with these animals, maybe put the camera down and just experience it for what it is, appreciate the beauty and magic of that moment.

And, apparently I am true to my word on this in my personal behavior.  Here is the unedited footage of my encounter with the Transients, taken with my phone.  Clearly, I am not paying attention to the frame, because I am focused on the whales!

Transient Killer Whales in Saratoga Passage from Herongrrrl on Vimeo.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Another New Baby!

The Center for Whale Research has just announced (on Facebook, so I don't have an article to link to yet) that L91Muncher was seen this morning with a newborn calf!  This makes the fifth baby born into the SRKW this year, and there is rumored to be another one due any time now in K pod...after nearly three years with no surviving babies, this is fantastic news!  Welcome, wee L122, and may you live a long, healthy life!

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Something Beautiful

Finishing my week on the boat, the last weekday run of the season for me, I was challenged to figure out how to describe the sunset. All evening as we came home, the water was pewter beneath the storm clouds except where shreds of green and blue reflected the patches in the sky where the clouds were not.  Little wisps of rainbow appeared along the eastern sky, never a whole rainbow, just these little patches where the Sun is hitting the virga in just the right way. It gave the southbound trip a surreal feeling, as though somehow we sailed inside the facets of giant crystal all around the Salish Sea.

Just naming the sunset's colors would make it sound garish: every shade of blue from periwinkle to neon electric blue was there, somewhere through gaps in the the clouds, and every shade of blue, purple and grey visible in the water.  The setting sun backlit cumulus clouds rising over the Olympic Mountains in colors I couldn't decide what to call and finally decided were the color of dahlias, the dahlias that range from orange through yellow through pink that grow in my front yard. Really the clouds were cantaloupe melon colored, but to describe them so makes them sound opaque and thick. The light was clear and lambent,the color of embers in a lively  fire: bright, clear pink-orange.  But that makes it sound warm and the weather was chill this evening, cooler than it has been for months and months.

The seasons have turned, of a certainty, although the calendar still gives us a few more weeks of official summer.  The redneck phalaropes are back on the Salish Sea, erupting in flashes of white underwings from the seaweed mats where they hide on the water as the boat approaches.  Golden big leaf maple leaves drift beneath the water surface when I tie the boat up in Friday Harbor. The Heermann's gulls are beginning to leave, while the Steller sea lions are coming back in droves; the jellyfish become scarce, and I have seen the first grebe of the season. At home, I prepare for a new off-season job and the coming school year, and find myself thinking about putting in my fall garden and hoping a few of my green tomatoes will ripen before Samhain. But mostly I appreciate the beauty of the change.  It is refreshing to end the day not covered with a sheen of sweat, not exhausted from the heat, which has been well above average and challenging for me this summer.   That is the intangible beauty of the summer-fall transition, the change in attitude that comes from the cooler air, the feeling of the change more than what it looks like, the shift in energy as the other animals and plants change behavior, location, and sometimes state in the face of the oncoming darkness.

How do you describe what cannot be seen? How can words capture and convey the feeling of standing between sea and sky, below the edge of the forest, the great vault of air and water before and above that lifts my soul  as though I could effortlessly spread wings and fly out into it,  beneath a sky more autumn than August, in the living stillness of a late afternoon devoid of mechanical human sound yet alive with the small noises of water and woods? That was Lime Kiln State Park on a recent weekday evening, a few people scattered on the shore in reverent silence, watching and waiting.  Here is where we come in hopes of the whales passing famously close to shore, so close you can make eye contact with them, because the water gets deep immediately offshore and they come in to play in the kelp there.  The park is locally known as Whale Watch Park, although it was originally established as a scenic preserve around the lighthouse and historic lime kilns; now it is a Mecca for those who wish to observe the SRKW in their natural habitat.

I had been to Lime Kiln a few times before, and one time was able to glimpse the whales in the far distance. This recent trip, I hoped, of course, for the close pass, the whales up against the rocks where I could see their eyes and feel their breath on my face. Although they do sometimes surprise us with a close pass by the boat, it is something I can never get enough of, and here, at the park , it would be on my own terms, not having to maintain my professional demeanor for the passengers.  I arrived, with my daughters, a couple hours before sunset, with the idea that we would have a picnic dinner and enjoy and evening there, and hopefully the whales would come by. We had seen them from the boat earlier in the day, to the south of the park, so it was certainly well within the realm of possibility.  We had dinner, and the girls began to explore the rocky shore, while I kept a vigilant watch toward the south, my last known position for the whales.

Miraculously for this busy stretch of Haro Strait, where the deep draft cargo ships pass between the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Georgia Strait on their way from the port of Vancouver, BC to the Pacific Ocean, there wasn't a boat in sight.  In the stillness, I heard the first blow...and there, well offshore, was a whale passing to the south.  They were far enough out, and the day warm enough, that heatwaves along the surface of the water distorted the view through my binoculars.  It sounded like there were many more whales out there than I could actually see...but hearing their breath, the distinctive PHWOOSH that I can't quite capture accurately with English phonemes, was spellbinding.  I stood transfixed, watching the distant fins I could see.  And then, out of the corner of my eye, a fin sliced the wrinkling water much closer to shore!  "Look!" I shouted to the girls. "Oh, look look look look look!" As though it was the first time I had ever seen one.  And this one, I knew!  It was L92 Crewser, and a moment later, his aunt, L90 Ballena.  They were the closest to pass by, still a few hundred yards offshore, but  clearly visible.  Others followed, and I watched raptly through my binoculars, particularly intrigued by a group of females and calves, too far to identify, who traveled in a thick knot together, as though just coasting along the current while they engaged in different social activities, pectoral slapping (we could see the slaps, then hear them a moment later as the sound traveled over the water), spyhops and logging.  I was mesmerized, entranced, enthralled.  As always.

About a week later, I found myself in the company of a transient killer whale superpod.  At least two family groups, I'm still not sure exactly who, but for the time we were with them they appeared to be resting. Killer whales don't sleep like we do; to give up their consciousness while sleeping would mean they would drown, since for them breathing is a conscious act. So, like other members of the dolphin family, they "turn off" half their brain at a time and cruise along slowly, often in a long row, synchronising their breaths so they surface and dive together.  When a group of "sleeping" killer whales comes to the surface, you see a lot of fins at once, and even if it isn't the breaching everyone hopes to see, it is a very impressive sight.

There are moments when time moves differently, seeming much faster or slower than it really is.  Being on a whale boat with people who have come from all over the world to see whales,  and you have seen them in the distance but the others haven't yet, and you're waiting for them to come back up, all eyes on the water, watching and waiting, and you don't know where or when they will appear again, five minutes can feel like forever.

This particular morning with the sleeping whales, they were diving for 5-6 minutes.  I stood on the bow, watching all around the boat and waiting, knowing they could show up anywhere although they had been moving in the same general direction for a while.  We hadn't seen them for a good six and a half minutes,  a pretty long drive even by transient standards. And then,  suddenly, immediately in front of the boat--not in a danger of being hit but so close it takes all our breath away--they rise as one, tall columns of steam rising above their backs as they exhale.  A little boy in front of me who has been asking great questions all morning suddenly cries out that the boat shouldn't be so close to the whales.  He was listening when I explained the rules earlier! I tell him he's right, they surprised us,  hear how is just turned off the engines?  And then he says, "There's  mist on my face," and I realize it's on mine too--the very breath of those whales is on my skin.  A slow building euphoria takes hold of me, as I register this way in which I have been touched by a killer whale for the first time. Incredible, and wonderful.  And we weren't even to the San Juans yet.  The day continued with close passes by L22 Spirit and L85 Mystery off San Juan Island, and some time with a pair of humpback whales in the middle of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, who also chose to surface right next to the boat after a long dive. Beauty in the water, beyond my ability to adequately describe.

Monday, August 24, 2015

On Environmental Education at the End of the World

As I am writing this, my state is on fire. Massive wildfires are sweeping across the eastern half of Washington, always the drier side, but in this year of unprecedented drought and heat, even moreso.  I cannot fathom what it is like to be there, to witness these enormous storms of flame racing over the landscape, to be a firefighter trying to do anything to make a difference in the face of this literal inferno.

Even here on the "wet" west side, which is of course dangerously dry this year too (and there are fires on this side, though not nearly as large), we are impacted by these enormous fires.  The prevailing winds sweep most of the smoke eastward, but our sunrises and sunsets are lurid red and the horizon is heavy with haze from westward-leaking smoke. As my boat heads out each morning, the skies are grim with smoke the further north we go.  I haven't seen Mt. Baker in a week at least.

Last week, on a day off, I went to a local zoo with my daughters and some extended family.  We decided to watch a stage show at the zoo, which was clearly a very sophisticated presentation with a customized stage, great special effects, really entertaining animals and a good overall message emphasizing that it is good to go outside, suggesting geocaching as a fun thing to do while you're there, and that getting involved with Citizen Science efforts was a worthwhile thing, too. But. The show began with a little vignette in which Our Hero was trying to figure out why frogs weren't eating all the mosquitoes this year.  After a brief search, Our Hero discovered that the frogs in the pond were "covered with trash" so they couldn't catch the mosquitoes.  And that is where my faith in humanity faltered a bit, and the dedicated environmental educator in me wanted to weep.

Now, I can't say of a certainty that the massive wildfires in Washington (and other parts of the west) right now are a result of Global Climate Change, but it's a pretty good bet that the drought that is exacerbating them is part of it. It is certainly possible that a massive drought all up and down the west coast of North America, that has been going on for years in some areas, is just a coincidence, a part of the normal cycle that is bigger and deeper than we understand with our limited data (weather and climate have, after all, been doing their thing far longer than we have been keeping track of it, and when one considers that it takes 20,900 years for all the possibilities of astronomical influence on the tides to play out, it is worth considering that we really don't know that much about the overall cycles of climate with the limited records we have available to us).  But I kind of doubt it.

I confess that I have kept my head in the sand about issues of Global Climate Change, figuring selfishly that I would not live to see the worst of it. I wanted to save myself from the profound grief of watching the ecosystem that I love with every cell in my body dying a slow, painful death. Turns out it might be a faster death than anyone anticipated, as the very salmon in our rivers are dying from water that is too warm, which of course will have dire consequences for the SRKW. The impacts of climate change are happening swiftly and mercilessly, and I am left with only my faith to believe in any possibility that those species I count among my non-human family and friends will adapt as swiftly as they need to in order to carry on.

In the face of this, frogs covered with trash seems to me to be the most trite, useless example of an environmental problem that could possibly be given.  Especially since frogs are creatures that actually move, so generally speaking even frogs living in a garbage-laden environment will be getting out from under the garbage. When I coordinated a kids' environmental club some 20 years ago, the "cost" of membership was declaring something that the new member would do to help keep Puget Sound clean. The overwhelming majority of kids said "pick up trash." Even then I felt a little despair, reading these responses, because it is such a superficial, cosmetic issue.

Trash is unsightly.  Trash can injure wildlife, and does so, although this is not so common or critical a threat for most species as one might imagine (if ten salmon are swimming in a river too warm to have enough dissolved oxygen to sustain them, and one gets caught in a 6-pack ring, they will still all die). Trash is really easy to pick up and put in the garbage or recycling. We can feel like we have control over trash, so it is an easy target and low-hanging fruit for an introduction to environmental responsibility and activism. And when you are speaking to a general audience, you need to consider the lowest common denominator, and start with that low-hanging fruit.

What makes me want to weep over this example is that we are, very literally, facing the end of the world as we know it. I am not so doom-and-gloom to imagine that the human race is going extinct or anything like that, but massive change is happening and will continue to happen, that will almost certainly have an enormous impact on some very basic things about our lives--like where our food and water come from, and what plants and animals will remain to share the world with us. Unless every single one of us, starting today, goes out and starts planting hundreds of trees (and realistically, most of those seedlings would die here right now for lack of water, unless we were also allocating water resources our region may not possess to keep them well watered), climate change is going to keep careening headlong toward whatever the new normal will be. As someone who loves the ecosystem I grew up in and finds ambient temperatures over 75F to be miserably uncomfortable, I am not really excited about what that new normal will be.

And faced with these rapidly occurring uncomfortable changes, I question whether or not we can ethically limit ourselves to discussion of "safe" environmental activism with general audiences. Sure, keeping it simple like that is comfortable and doesn't cause anyone anxiety or concern. But we MUST be made uncomfortable, anxious and concerned in order to get to the point of changing our behaviors if we want to continue to live on a planet that has things like comfortable temperatures, green forests, coffee, chocolate, seafood, and the ability to continue making irresponsible choices about having too many children in the name of religion.  Failure to recognize that and act on it, and we'll all be eating soylent green and applying to government agencies for the privilege to breed in a world where you wouldn't want to be a kid anyway.

Generally, I subscribe to the "no catastrophes before 4th grade" rule in environmental education.  Why raise your kids to be sad and anxious about issues they have so very little influence over?  It has, rightly I think, been suggested that children raised from the cradle with awareness of larger environmental issues will disengage out of a need for emotional safety and therefore not become the problem solvers of the future that we need. As a child of the Cold War, I understand; many of my peers believed very seriously they would never see adulthood and made choices in their adolescence that had some pretty serious impacts for their adult lives. Global Climate Change and the dire predictions of what might happen could certainly create the same kind of fatalistic zeitgeist among my daughters' generations.  But in the recent conversations about race issues in the U.S., I heard someone mention that white children are often sheltered from the idea of racism while children of color must be raised with knowledge of racist realities for their own self preservation. White privilege begins at home, because who wants to teach their kids how awful people can be to each other?  Every parent wants their children to grow with hope and a positive outlook on life, and what better way to destroy that than by holding forth the evidence of how untrue it is?  Yet some parents have no choice but to present their young children with this information for the sake of their survival.

I submit that, in the same way white parents must start teaching their young children about racism (beyond the scope of this post, but for now I'll just say that until social justice is achieved, environmental recovery will be impossible, and if it makes you angry or upset to consider that possibility I beseech you to examine the source of those feelings), we must also start teaching all of our children about the ecological realities we are living in, because our children's survival depends on it. We can no longer soft-pedal reality, of race or environment, and expect any positive long-term outcome in either realm.

This post is a lot darker than what I like to put out into the aether, but I've been feeling it strongly. If you've read through this far, thank you for sticking with me.  I recommend you go outside now and find a little patch of space to share with some nonhuman beings for a while. We humans are very resilient creatures, and we can survive through a lot. I still believe it is possible for us to reverse (to some degree) and restore things in a way that most of us (human and nonhuman) can survive, even thrive, and carry on. But in order for that to happen, all of us need to allow ourselves to be educated to an uncomfortable level, and change our behaviors as we see fit to do so, unless we want to wait for forces beyond our control to force those changes.  It's already city has voluntary water restrictions in place, but may have to impose mandatory ones if enough people don't respond to the voluntary request.  A small example in a huge bigger picture. Take the initiative, and take action. If you have to start with picking up trash, because it is quick and available and actionable, go ahead.  But promise me you'll make that the first step to doing much more.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Love and Uncertainty

I lost my first pregnancy to miscarriage.

Finally, after being so careful for so long, waiting for the "right time" to start a family, I was pregnant, and completely thrilled.  I was young and healthy, no family history of reproductive problems, and had no reason to expect that, ten weeks in, I would receive the devastating news that I was not, after all, going to have a new baby in my arms in a few short months.

I found a great deal of solace and support on an internet forum for other women who had experienced pregnancy loss.  Some had faced multiple losses, and every time a new pregnancy was announced there was a collective holding of breath through the first trimester to see if this one would be "sticky."

There was a conversation on that forum about dealing with the uncertainty of another pregnancy that may or may not result in a living baby.  Some women felt like it was easier to try to remain emotionally unattached to the potential baby until they had passed the point in the pregnancy of their previous losses, and then it would be "safe" to start investing in the idea.  But one woman said she loved her babies from the moment she knew she was pregnant, because she knew that she might not see them born, and wanted to love them as much as she could for long as she could while they were alive.

I was reminded of that conversation earlier this week.

One of the passengers on my whale watching boat asked the question, will the drought have any implications for the whales? And the honest answer is, yes, it absolutely will. Baby salmon need a lot of dissolved oxygen in the water for their tiny, inefficient gills to function.  Cold water holds more dissolved oxygen than warm water does. Normally, the heavy snow pack in the mountains around the Salish Sea melts slowly over the summer and keeps the salmon-bearing waters nice and cold.  This past winter, the snow didn't happen, and now the water temperatures in the rivers are higher than ever recorded, and fish are dying in that water because it is too warm for them.  What this means is that the rate of "escapement" for baby salmon this year will probably be very low, which means that, in another five years or so when this generation of Chinook returns to the rivers, the return rate will be very low.  And that means the SRKW will have a hard time finding enough to eat here.

One of the difficulties in managing the salmon population (leaving aside for the moment the supreme arrogance of the assumption that humans actually do know enough to "manage" any natural system appropriately) is that every single salmon-bearing stream has its own genetically distinct population of salmon, and every stream is uniquely vulnerable to circumstances that can have a huge impact on the escapement and eventual return of each generation born in its waters.  Maybe conditions are perfect for high escapement on a given stream in a given year, but a landslide blocks salmon passage on a given year, or heavy rains carry too many toxic substances to the stream from surrounding streets and the salmon of that generation die off or have their reproductive capabilities destroyed.

When something like that happens to an isolated stream or river system, the others can sometimes make up for it. A couple years ago, the Fraser River Chinook return was dismally low, so the SRKW took themselves out to the Washington coast, where Chinook runs were at record highs. It was a tough year for the whale watching boats, but the whales themselves did very well--all the SRKW babies born last winter were conceived that summer amid an abundance of food.  But if climate conditions mean that all of the rivers are experiencing low salmon escapement in a given year, when that generation of salmon is supposed to return, it will be a very low return all around.  And that low return will likely continue in a cycle into the future, until and unless conditions improve significantly, and maybe even with a little nudge from humans to help. This, of course, assumes that conditions to sustain salmon continue to exist at all here in the Salish Sea, which is a real question as climate change accelerates.

At the moment, Washington State and British Columbia are only in the first year of drought.  And hopefully (a wholly inadequate word to express my feelings on the matter) it will only be one isolated year of drought.  But looking south to California, where the drought has been dragging on for years now, it can't be assumed that we aren't heading down the same long, dry road. The SRKW rely on salmon from rivers along the west coast, from about Monterey Bay in California to the Fraser in British Columbia. That's it. That's what they've got.  A long term drought along the west coast could very literally be a death sentence for this population.  Each of the matrilines I know and love could starve to death in the next 5-10 years, easily.  The fish they rely upon are already endangered, with little public will to change behaviors as necessary to restore their populations. And, while I try to stick my fingers in my ears and ignore the evidence, there is more than a little reason to believe that at this point, all the public will in the world won't make a difference if the climate is moving beyond the point of being able to sustain Chinook salmon in the Salish Sea.

Now, the SRKW are remarkably intelligent animals. I believe they are aware of their plight, to some degree, and that they are intelligent enough to try to address it in some ways. Changing their diet is an obvious one; if they didn't insist on eating Chinook salmon nearly to the exclusion of anything else, they could do just fine. And we know they do eat other kinds of fish, although not nearly so regularly. In the past week or so I have seen some reports about some members of Kpod harassing a porpoise, and there have been past reports suggesting that some of the SRKWs may occasionally indulge in some marine mammal hunting, if not eating. There are other food sources available, should the whales choose to use them. But, intelligence and wisdom aren't the same thing. There are plenty of examples in human culture of groups of people doing things that are maladaptive, because that's the tradition. And maybe the whales are bound up in the same kind of thinking.  There is no way to know, we can only observe and see what they do with the situation as it develops.

But every day I spend with my beloved SRKW, in the back of my mind I know that I may outlive them, that there is a very real possibility they will be nothing but stories to my grandchildren, should I be lucky enough to have any. Perhaps one day I will hold one of my daughter's daughters on my knee and tell her about the day J42 Echo waved at the boat, the day L77 Matia brought her tiny baby L119 Joy right up to the bow, and Joy did a headstand and flipped her flukes at the adoring passengers. I will try to explain what it was like to see all of Jpod surfacing together in Rosario Strait against the backdrop of snow-covered Mount Baker in mirror-smooth waters. I will try to describe how thrilled I always feel when I first spot the tall fins from a distance.  As I write this, I hope and even pray with every fiber of my being that those stories will just be the precursor to taking my grandchildren out to meet the grandchildren of Echo, Joy and the others. 

What do you do with your heart when you learn a loved one has been diagnosed with a potentially terminal illness?  How do you guard your emotions when you are newly pregnant for the second, third or sixth time but you have no living children yet to show for it? How do you care for a species that so captivates your heart, soul and imagination when there are only 81 left and their food source is dwindling?  Not questions anyone wants to answer, but questions we are faced with.  Maybe it is easier to disengage, close the emotional connection, and lessen the potential pain.

My choice is to love them as much as I can for as long as I can, while they are still alive.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Arbitrary Categories

We humans are really good at categorizing things.  Pattern recognition is, after all, a survival skill:  these plants are edible, these will kill you if you eat them; this animal is good to eat, this one will steal your food, this one thinks you are good to eat, etc. These things can be somewhat arbitrary, though, since different human cultures disagree on which animals are good to eat vs. which animals are good to keep as pets or working animals.  Maybe the killer whales do, too.  After all, to a large carnivorous cetacean, a harbor seal pup and a mature Chinook salmon are about the same level of filling, but a resident will pass by the first to eat the second and a transient, vice versa.

I find it a curious thing, how humans categorize things and then just assume that categorization has some inherent truth to it, when most often those categories are totally based on a particular experience or perception that may have no bearing in greater reality.  Critters on the beach at low tide are a good example. If you study intertidal marine invertebrates, you will learn about tidal zones and the different animals who live in different zones. It's presented as a kind of gospel truth:  you will never find sea stars above the lower intertidal, there are just some animals who don't ever occur up high on the beach because they would dry out and die in the hot sun.

Once upon a time I was asked to do a beach walk for a group of girl scouts who had been doing a unit on oceans.  It happened to be late November, and the time of their regular meeting was not really a great one for having a low-tide beach walk, but we worked with what we had and explored a narrow strip of rocky shoreline just at sunset.   It was cold, but at least mostly dry that day, and the season was a typically wet one.  I was a little disappointed that, given how low the tide was, we were only going to see a few things--the things I had been taught to find in the upper intertidal, because you only found certain animals there...right?  Imagine my surprise when we discovered green sea urchins and shaggy sea mice waaaaaaay up high on the beach where they "didn't belong." I couldn't understand it, not a single reference I could find could explain this anomaly.

And then I realized: all the research that had been done to categorize the intertidal animals of the Salish Sea had been done during extreme low tides, during the day. As it happens, those daytime low tides here happen near Summer Solstice and into the summer, and our usual summer drought climate means all those tender squishy critters need to stay low on the beach or risk becoming anemone-leather before the next high tide. But in late November, when the days are much shorter, cooler, and wetter, hanging out near the high tide line is not nearly so risky.  It makes good sense, biologically, to mix up your territory, because if you're too predictable, you make easier prey.

Still, it seems this kind of categorization is something humans can't do without. We need categories, hierarchies, levels of affiliation and allegiance.  "Favorites." I am forever perplexed by the idea that each individual needs to have a single, favorite something...color, food, sport, whatever.  Whenever I am posed with a security question for an online account, I need to choose very carefully the question that doesn't require me to declare a "favorite" something, because my favorite now might not be my favorite in a month or a year or even an hour. Consistency, as they say, is the hobgoblin of a small mind.

This is true on online quizzes as well, although it is something of a frivolous example.  Often a quiz will show a number of pictures and ask you where you would prefer to live. If there's a picture of water and a picture of forest, or a picture of a waterfall and a picture of the do I choose?? I live where all of these things are beautiful together in ways they can't be alone.

So it is gratifying to me to observe one of my favorite summer phenomena in the San Juans: the salt water dragonflies. They do not, of course, breed in salt water, because they are fresh water insects.  But often at the dock, and sometimes even out in the middle of the straits, I will see a big, beautiful, blue darner dragonfly flying past. I first encountered these creatures at alpine lakes in the Oregon Cascades, and remember vividly an afternoon I sat very still letting one hatch out of its larval form on my knee, unfurl its gossamer wings, and eventually fly free. They are one of many species of dragonflies here in the Pacific Northwest, and among the largest. Their abdomens are like chips of cloudless sky, so vividly blue. (This will sound ironic, but they are among my favorite creatures...yes, I have several, but I can never choose one above the others, even though it might seem like I could given the primary subject of this blog.) To see these creatures that you will never find in any field guide to a saltwater shoreline flitting about over the open water reminds me that, whatever categories our human minds place on the world, the world will keep on doing what it likes. The dragonflies love to fly over saltwater here, and to me it's a marriage of the marine and upland environments that I recognize in my soul as well.

This blue darner flew into the cabin on my whale watching boat near Smith Island, miles from any freshwater source. It circled the cabin and landed, apparently exhausted, on a window sill. I kept it safe for the rest of the cruise and let it go at home, where I knew it would find plenty of companions.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Busy, busy...lots of time on the boat and various other obligations are keeping me from writing a proper post just now.  But two quick things:

1) IT'S RAINING.  This is wonderful.  The temperatures are cooler and there has been rain off and on for the past couple of days.  It doesn't break the drought, but it sure feels and smells fantastic.

2) A happy story from further north, of a young transient killer whale who found herself stranded but, with a little help from some humans, rode out the low tide and swam free again.